A Question

Posted by on Apr 21, 2007 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments


In the aftermath of the massacre at Virginia Tech this week, there’s inevitably a lot of debate about gun laws (both for and against) on the web and elsewhere. Some specious stuff and some really very odd op-ed stuff…like this on the Wall Street Journal.

What strikes me is how willingly English language commentators are accepting the “mad loner” label on the perpetrator. Just as Richard Nisbett reported in a previous case of an asian student massacre.

The BBC and the WSJ alike have revelled in the stories of mental health problems, of antisocial traits and behaviour and so on. All of which fits neatly into our assumptions about ‘evil’.

“There are evil and psychotic people in this world willing to do great harm to others if they aren’t stopped. The dilemma in a free society is how to stop them.

Cho Seung-Hui seems to fit the profile of a social misfit who snapped. Like many other mass killers, the 23-year-old is being described by acquaintances as a “loner,” given to bursts of hostility and other antisocial behavior. We will learn more in the coming days, but our guess is that those who knew him will conclude that they saw the warning signs.

The calculation of his murder spree also suggests some deeper evil at work–if we can use that word in liberal company. Cho used chain locks to bar students from escaping, lined some up against a wall, and emptied his clips with brutal resolve. “There wasn’t a shooting victim that didn’t have less than three bullet wounds in them,” one of the doctors on the scene told CNN. This was a malevolent soul.”

But in Nisbett’s version, the chinese language papers of the day saw things differently: they exercised themselves on what had gone wrong with their community that an individual should end up behaving like this – not, you understand, on what the WSJ might call “soft liberalism”, but because they see us all as connected to each other, “Interdependent” as Ghandi put it.

Has anyone picked up a similar line of reporting in this sad case?

As ever, it all depends how you see things: if we’re interdependent in one aspect of our lives, why not in the others – the less pleasant bits?


  1. Charles Frith
    April 22, 2007

    I’m glad you touched on this subject. The demonisation process by the media that further removes this guy to the periphery of society is partly, I believe, what made him a killer in the first place.
    This guy was clearly lonely, according to the NYT, “he acted, a neighbor recalled, ‘like he had a broken heart.'”
    What makes a neighbour make that observation and yet his own family failed to articulate that thought in their press release? School is a tough place and healthy in that it encourages us to socialise and learn to take a few hard knocks. But in this instance it seems that young peoples insensitivies were excessive. From now on will it be the case that many students will reconsider their behavaviour?
    The kid was unwell, that was clear to see but the first medicine should have been society. Not anti-depressants. We should also bear in mind that 32 deaths is a third of your average large car bomb in Baghdad. It barely hit’s my political radar.

  2. Johnnie
    April 22, 2007

    Good point, it’s interesting how the individualist paradigm colours our thinking.

  3. Helen
    April 22, 2007

    I have been thinking about this very thing.
    I believe the complex and messy societal causes of incidents like this are explored, but reflectively well after the event and often in fiction rather than news media.